Second Careers
Not Your Average
  Game Show Host
Straddling Artistic




Not Your Average Game Show Host

By Nancy Fitzgerald

It seems like a funny trip, from Morningside Heights to Hollywood. But not for Ben Stein '66.

He started out with the requisite good looks (who can argue?), sex appeal ("Women love me," he says) and brains (after all, he went to the College). But Ben Stein a TV star? Really, how could life be any different?

Five times a week on Comedy Central (check your local listings for air times), Stein pits his Columbia-trained intellect against one great mind after another on Win Ben Stein's Money: Dave from Los Angeles; Amy from Stanford; Joe, a programmer with Microsoft. They're all smart (they must take a test to be on the show), but Stein is smarter, at least most of the time. When he wins, he keeps his stash of the prize money, $5,000 per show. A contestant who wins goes home up to $5,000 richer. It's a quiz show with a difference: The quizmaster - Stein - must answer the same tough questions as the contestants.

"I'm like a gladiator in the ring," he says. "There's a tremendous tension, and it's not fun when I lose. Money and pride are two big things." Stein doesn't often lose. "I win about 80 percent of the time," he estimates. "Some seasons I win less. It depends on how I'm feeling."

And yes, it really is his money. "It is deducted from my pay if I lose," he explains. "I get a certain amount of pay each show, and they deduct more than half of it if I lose."

But Stein has an Ivy education, and genetics, on his side. His father, Herbert, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Nixon administration and invented the term supply-side economics. His mother, Mildred (a Barnard alumna), was an economist by training, too. But mostly, his parents instilled in young Ben a love of family and a sense of humor. "My parents were very affectionate and very funny," says Stein, whose mother died in 1997 and whose father passed away two years later. "What I remember about them wasn't their insights about fiscal policy, but how they would sit with me and talk about my problems. Those are the things I worship and value."

What about Regis Philbin and Alex Trebek? Could they handle the pressure? "They wouldn't have the guts," contends Stein. "It's terribly difficult. They'd be crazy to do it. They get paid so much to do their shows, and they're so easy compared to mine."

And really, he's right. The questions on Win Ben Stein's Money are hard. What 20th-century art movement claimed to be anti-art? How many sides are on a dodecagon? "Galaxy" comes from the Greek word for what fluid? What smooth cylinder is used to roll out pastry dough? (I only knew the rolling-pin question; I would have gone home empty-handed.)

Stein arrived, reluctantly, on campus in 1962 ("I wished I had gone to Yale"), but after a year or so, he was a true-blue Columbia man. It wasn't so much the living arrangements that won him over ("My dorm was a tiny hell hole in Furnald") or the charms of New York City ("New York is loud and rude"). It was more his fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, his pals and a girlfriend from Barnard who changed his life.

Academics were useful, too. How many Columbia alumni, after all, can claim that the Core Curriculum comes in handy every day at work? Stein credits Professors Harris and Fiering and Rothstein for providing ammunition for his impressive game show performance. And Milton Friedman, a visiting economics professor, provided the inspiration for Stein's memorable lesson on voodoo economics in the 1986 film Ferris Beuller's Day Off.

"I ad-libbed the entire scene," Stein recalls of his film role. "I drew my inspiration from a book by Friedman, The Monetary History of the United States. When I watch the movie, I think the lesson is quite interesting. Everybody else - about 99 percent of people - thinks it's boring."

After graduating from the College, Stein headed to New Haven for law school, where he didn't find the same sort of welcome he'd found a few years before in Morningside Heights. "People at Yale were very tough and aggressive," he says, "with a sort of smooth exterior. At Columbia, they're aggressive and uncouth, but there's a certain real warmth. I found a heart there."

From Yale Law, it was on to a brief stint as a trial lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission ("the worst job I ever had"), and then a gig as speechwriter, primarily on economics, for Presidents Nixon and Ford (he claims no credit for the line, "I am not a crook."). Along the way, he taught undergraduate law courses at Pepperdine and UC Santa Cruz and also taught a popular course on the social and political content of film at American University. He has been a journalist with The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and is a full-fledged author with 16 books to his credit, from novels about life in Los Angeles to treatises about finance and culture.

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